Navin Raheja


Stories on Wildlife

The Stripped Terror of Sunderkhal

While traveling from Ramnagar to Dhikala a commoner usually overlooks the part of the road beyond Garjia Temple which in the recent years has been made as an accessible interface on the side of the road beside a gorge. Most of the vehicles travelling on Ranikhet or Bhartrojkhan circuit stop on this temple and the pujari comes to you with an 'aarti' and 'tilak' plate. As you cross the noisy bridge immediately made on the gorge the road becomes steep and curvy. A kilometer beyond the road lands into a flat terrain and bifurcates. It is at this point that Sunderkhal starts. Sunderkhal, as the name suggests, is a charming little village on the outskirts of Jim Corbett National Park. Flanked by River Kosi on one side and the hills of Corbett on the other, Sunderkhal gets normally overlooked by tourists zipping from Ramnagar to Dhangarhi- the main entry point to the world-famous national park. But even those who stop here momentarily to savor its beauty remain blissfully unaware of Sunderkhal's scary secret of a cursed village.

It was a cold winter evening of February 5, 1988, starting from Delhi after getting free from office work while I crossed Ramnagar and reached Ringora to have tea with fans and rusk (a kind of indian biscuit), at my old friend's Bacchi Singh's dhaba¬ it was well past midnight. I honked and yelled but he did not open the door so I parked my maruti van on the roadside in front of the dhaba and decided to spend the night by folding the rear seat of the van and making my own bed.

The next morning I woke up to the curious faces of villagers peering through car windows and walked into Bacchi's thatched roof dhaba. Asking him to prepare tea I demanded for a water bottle to attend the natures call in the meantime. He said, “Saab! Do not go to the jungle as there is a maneater lurking now a days.” It is from here that the story of the maneating tiger starts. ¬ He continued, “You were lucky to have survived the night,” one of them told me.

"A 25-year old youth riding a horse was approaching Sunderkhal from nearby Garjia when a tiger suddenly emerged from the bushes. In the batting of an eyelid as the horrified eye-witnesses watched, the tiger knocked down both the horse and the rider. The man's partly-eaten body was discovered a day later."

This one incident, as any old timer to Corbett would tell you, turned out to be the beginning of successive man-eaters' reign over Sunderkhal.

Curiosity made me cross the Kosi River across Garjia Temple the next day to listen to the story of Laxmi Bai- whose daughter in law was killed by the tiger at Sunderkhal while she went to collect firewood. Only her clothes and slippers could be recovered and bloodstains were found to a drag mark deep into a ravine.

That was 1988. Even now, after a gap of 23 long years, the air in Sunderkhal, ¬ still remains thick with fear. The uncomforting reality is that Sunderkhal and the area around had always been the favorite hunting ground of man-eaters. And like the mythical Hydra, another killer tiger emerges on the scene after the last one killed or captured.

Jim Corbett in his famous book, The Maneaters of Kumaon, gives a vivid description of the Mohaan maneater which operated in the same area at the turn of the last century.

The seven months between September 2010 and February 2011 saw seven men and women of the area falling victim to a particular man-eating tiger. Though the animal was shot down by the forest authorities on the outskirts of Sunderkhal in February itself, fear refuses to leave the village as even a cheetal call at a distance in the forest puts shadows of a ghost tiger lurking around.

The pull of Corbett remains as intense as ever, but over the years my responsibilities as the CMD of Raheja Developers kept my visits to Corbett limited and I could not really follow the Sunderkhal maneaters for some time. However when many human killings, in a span of a few months shook me, I again picked up my Forester in February 2011 to follow the maneater. Starting at past 8 pm from the house of my friend Arun Mohan advocate at Sundernagar, New Delhi, I reached Ringoda at 2:30 am. This time again I stopped to call for my old friend Bacchi Singh and got an answer from behind the door of his thatched hut that Bacchi Singh is untraceable for over an year or more. So I moved on, only to be told later that Bachhi went in the forest and vanished without a trace and his old wife was still sitting on the choolah making tea waiting for Bacchi to return.

However, seven human deaths in quick succession brought matter to a head. Several times during January 2011, the villagers of Sunderkhal, supported by people from surrounding villages, laid a virtual siege on the office of Corbett authorities at Ramnagar.

That night I continued to stop at Sunderkhal where my friend's were sitting around the campfire with the forest guards with their guns with safety latches down.

I had a long discussion with the forest guards present and with my team of Ajay Suri and Asif Khan understanding the killer was a ¬ behavior of a maneater. I was told that the killer was a tigress. All the clues pointed that the animal was a female.

I took two forest guards in my Forester who were standing out of the sun-roof looking for the maneater for the rest of the night.

Next day tracing for more evidences and giving my inputs to everyone my busy schedule again at Raheja Developers brought me back.

When Pooran Chand parked his scooter around 2pm beside the road to relieve himself a piercing cry is what the people heard the last of him.

Assissted by my team the forest officials shot the tiger while it was still eating the body of Pooran Chand.

The introspection of the phenomenon makes me add that man eaters are not born but are made by our mistakes only.

Sunderkhal is an important corridor encroached by human settlements. Tigers and elephants have to cross Sunderkhal to the other side of the Kosi river to reach the Ramnagar Forest Division.

And this is where National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) stepped in.....

The NTCA, we learn, has asked the Uttarakhand Government to pave way for the speedy rehabilitation of Sunderkhal village. This is important for several reasons. Sunderkhal- as any regular visitor to Corbett would tell you- sits right in the middle of prime tiger corridor connecting the famed national park with the Ramnagar Forest Division on the left bank of Kosi river. With the number of tigers In Corbett increasing at a breakneck speed- the latest tiger census of 2011 shows Corbett to have the maximum number of big cats anywhere in the country- the problem has only magnified.

To those uninitiated in the ways of the jungle, my comment about more tigers in Corbett causing bigger problems may seem perplexing. But that's how it is on the outskirts of Corbett. As things stand, just a narrow strip of land, that is occupied by the Sunderkhal village, is available to the tigers to move between Corbett and Ramnagar Forest division. With more tigers emerging on the scene, the big cats' conflict with humans in and around Sunderkhal has suddenly increased. The seven deaths prior to the shooting down of the last man-eater is easily the most recognised manifestation of this conflict. One really doesn't need an expert to pinpoint the cause of tigers opting for human flesh near Sunderkhal.

And this brings us to the larger, and probably trickier, aspect of a phenomenon which goes by the name of 'tiger tourism'.¬ Tiger has emerged as a big survivor in Corbett, and that is commendable. At the same time, tourists- tens and thousands of them- have started descending on Corbett in regular stream, all of them with one fervent wish: to catch just one glimpse of the magnificent striped cat.

No doubt we require a holistic approach. A sort of middle-path, as the venerable Chinese saint Confucious advocated centuries ago. Something which would leave the tourists happy while providing enough breathing space to the tiger. Sunderkhal is the ugly manifestation of things having gone horribly wrong. But I believe the solution too is not too far to seek- if only we look carefully.